What happened to slaves and blacks during the War of 1812 has not generated much commentary, but Sarah Lemmon’s Frustrated Patriots provides a few relevant details. Free “men of color” made a few gains during the brief war, Lemmon observes. They were initially prevented from enlisting in the militia except as musicians, but the Militia Act of 1814 allowed them regular enrollment so long as their color was specified.
Blacks’ most important role (albeit unofficial) during the war, Lemmon says, “was in the creation of fear on the part of the white man” over the ever-present potential for insurrection. Indeed, the first arms placed in the arsenal at Fayetteville in 1790 were for the purpose of suppressing “insurrection among the blacks.”
During the War of 1812, citizens of New Bern, says Lemmon, “declined to hire out their slaves to build a fort on Beacon Island lest the British come and take them off.” At least two general alarms spurred by fears of insurrection accompanied the British landing at Ocracoke, and a runaway slave apprehended in Beaufort reported that an uprising was in the works in the western end of the county.28
Slavery in the Nineteenth Century
At length the racial irony of the Revolution became clear: the ideology of freedom and independence had washed over racial boundaries. For the next nearly three-quarters of a century, those boundaries were maintained only with increasingly tight legal restrictions, local repression, and (at critical moments) campaigns of terror.29
Conditions in North Carolina as the century turned were not propitious for slave revolts, but slave numbers were growing rapidly. The approximately 100,000 slaves listed in the 1790 census jumped to 140,000 by 1800. Despite escalating prices (field hands that had cost $300 in 1804 brought $800 in 1840 and $1,500 to $1,700 in 1860), numbers continued to grow.30 By 1860 there were more than 362,000 (over 36 percent of the population). Large numbers of them were concentrated in Brunswick and New Hanover Counties, where they provided hard stoop labor in the swampy, mosquito-infested fields of the rice plantations. Many others spent their lives in tobacco fields on the state’s northeastern border.
Both men and women slaves lived in execrable dwellings, wore rough clothing, ate monotonous and nutritionally deficient food, and worked (pregnant or not) “sun to sun” under feared overseers. Whippings were universal – thirty-nine lashes were considered “moderate,” and 100 were not uncommon. Ears and toes were cut off as punishment, and runaways could have their Achilles tendons severed. Forced separations of families were commonplace, but “Oppression drew the slaves together,” Escott, Crowe and Hatley observe, “and knowledge of their African origins strengthened the bonds between them.”31 As they had long done, slaves resisted in every way available to them: stealing, doing less than their best work, or (despite the dire risk) fleeing. Religion offered some consolation and support, as did some native rituals, beliefs and cultural practices..
As early as 1829, North Carolina-born Boston clothier David Walker (1785-1830) issued his famousAppeal, in Four Articles; Together with a Preamble, to the Coloured Citizens of the World,denouncing slavery, urging blacks toward full freedom, and rejecting the colonization schemes widely being advocated at the time.32 Copies soon appeared in Fayetteville and Wilmington, but within a year Walker himself was dead amid suspicious circumstances. Rebellion was nevertheless afoot in many locations. Less than a year after Walker penned his manifesto, Nat Turner launched his ill-fated operation in Virginia’s Southampton County, which shared a border with North Carolina’s Hertford and Northhampton counties.33
As the early decades of the century passed, laws restricting slaves’ freedom continued to tighten in North Carolina, as they did virtually everywhere else in the South. New laws in 1826 and 1830 forbade teaching them to read or write. An 1835 law stripped free blacks of voting rights, and of owning or controlling a slave (hence of buying their families’ or relatives’ freedom). Patrollers were given wide discretion in dealing with runaways, and the power of masters, Chief Justice Thomas Ruffin wrote, had to be absolute “to render the submission of the slave perfect.”34
In coastal North Carolina, however, the laws were frequently and systematically subverted by black watermen and the networks they constructed and nurtured. From newspaper accounts, slave narratives, diaries, court records, and travelers’ accounts, Cecelski has reconstructed key details.35 The coastal route to freedom was well known on inland plantations, and slaves fled down the rivers toward coastal ports: down the Cape Fear to Wilmington, the Neuse and Trent to New Bern, the Tar toward Washington, and the Roanoke to Plymouth. Albemarle area slaves headed north to Norfolk or Portsmouth through the Dismal Swamp. They relied on maritime blacks as informers, messengers and collaborators. Indeed it was through Edenton that Harriet Jacobs (1813-1897), author of one of the premier slave narratives, escaped in 1842.36 During the early decades of the century, laws governing runaways (and giving aid to them) were made more severe, and both slaves and free blacks in black-majority Wilmington were forced to wear identification badges.
The Civil War and Reconstruction
The Civil War ended slavery, but also brought “dangers and difficult choices in the uncertain new world of freedom,” Escott, Crowe and Hatley conclude in their trenchant survey of the period.37When war broke out, some slaves were forced to accompany their masters (or masters’ sons) into battle as servants, or to build fortifications, but some 7,000 of them fled and enlisted in the Union army. Slave watermen provided critical intelligence to Union troops preparing to take Roanoke Island in late 1861, and in April 1862 helped pilot Federal troops into Beaufort, taken without firing a shot. Other black pilots helped as Union forces took over Fort Macon, and at other points on the Outer Banks. Others commandeered an array of small and large vessels and staged a massive boatlift to carry slaves to Federal territory. Similar operations, small and large, had collected some 10,000 contrabands on the coast by mid-1862.38 [ILLUSTRATION: Freed Negroes to New Bern NCC. CAPTION: Fig. 5-9: Freed Negroes Streaming Toward Union Lines, New Bern. Harper’s Weekly, 21 February 1863, 116. Courtesy of North Carolina Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.] [ILLUSTRATION: Contrabands getting Rebel Clothing NCC. CAPTION: Fig. 5-10: Distribution of Captured Rebels’ Clothing to Contrabands, New Bern, 1862. Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, 14 June 1862, 164. Courtesy of North Carolina Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.]
As they had at the war’s outbreak, some masters tried to obscure news of emancipation, but blacks moved quickly to assert their new freedom. In Carteret and Craven counties, blacks began their struggle for autonomy very soon after Gen. Burnside’s troops landed south of New Bern in March 1862.39 By January 1865, more than 11,000 freed blacks had congregated in New Bern. Focusing on escape, employment, education, and (for some) enlistment in the Union army, they began to develop an informal economy and moved to rescue still enslaved friends and family. Those who had skills hired themselves out (many to the Union army), and some established businesses. Northern teachers and freedmen’s societies assisted with education, operating makeshift schools in churches, barns, and abandoned plantation buildings. Unfortunately, such moves provoked wrath and retaliation from whites (including racist unionists).
But blacks were undeterred. By the fall of 1865, they staged a major convention in Raleigh, attended by 117 delegates from half the state’s counties, “to express the sentiments of Freedmen” – “with malice toward none, with charity for all,” as one of their banners said. A carefully worded address they sent across town to a white convention working to revise the state constitution was met with hostility. Hundreds of attacks on blacks followed; three New Hanover County officeholders were charged with beating and shooting blacks. But blacks were not to be deterred; their Freedmen’s Convention took on new life as the North Carolina Equal Rights League.40
To proclaim freedom was one thing, but to achieve it was another, as became increasingly clear. Emancipation did not eradicate generations-long class and race prejudice, as Escott reminds us. The South’s “massive structure of white supremacy" complete with its own ritual, emotional attitudes and prescribed behavioral patterns proved stubbornly durable. A spate of court cases before and after the war made that abundantly clear. During journalist Whitelaw Reid’s tour of the South in 1865-66, Beaufort citizens told him that black suffrage would be “very obnoxious to the prejudices of nearly the whole population.” Each class of whites had their special set of reasons for fearing and resenting blacks.41
Such attitudes were soon written into Reconstruction laws, which did not allow blacks to testify against whites in trials, serve on juries, enter into contracts, or keep a gun without a permit. Many whites were determined, as Crow, Escott and Hatley put it, to “restore as much of the slave regime as possible.” Paul Cameron offered his nearly 1,000 former slaves a labor contract that amounted to slavery in all but name, and when they rejected it decided to force them off his land. And at the national level, President Johnson’s appeasement of the pre-war power structure over the objections of Congress led to his impeachment in 1868.42
Johnson’s impeachment seemed to hold promise for North Carolina blacks. The Constitutional Convention of 1868 (which had a 107 to 13 Republican majority and fifteen black delegates) brought an array of changes vital to blacks: direct election of judges, abolishment of property requirements for holding office, dismantling of the elite-dominated county courts, and tax-supported public schools (though separate for blacks and whites). Republicans swept the elections of 1868, bringing reformist William Holden in as governor and taking two-thirds of all seats in the legislature (including twenty blacks). One black was elected county commissioner in New Hanover County, and two out of five in Edgecombe.43
From the perspective of the prewar elite, the decade after 1868 brought even worse yet. “Prominent men of the old elite,” Escott observes, “saw their worst nightmare – an alliance among the lower classes of both races – materializing under the protection of the Federal government” as poor whites and blacks turned to the Republican party.
Determined to regain their privileges, the elite focused on white supremacy as what a century later would have been called their “wedge issue.” Newspapers in eastern counties wrote alarmist articles about “Radicals . . . Stimulating the Negroes to Apply the Torch to our Homes and to take our Property by Force and Violence." The Wilmington Journal warned about miscegenation and the integration of juries and schools. Such measures, they insisted, would force poor men and their children "to be demeaned, debased, demoralized and degraded [by a] ruinous social equality . . . . [The] money, position and influence [of the rich] will keep the negro out of their houses, [but] IT IS IN THE POOR MAN'S HOUSE THAT THE NEGRO WILL ATTEMPT TO ENFORCE HIS EQUALITY."44
Clearly, conditions for reform were not auspicious in a state financially devastated by the war, and so determinedly racist. Democrats resolved to fight reform every step of the way – launching attacks on Republican officeholders and fueling an upsurge in Ku Klux Klan activity. Klan terror and violence (innumerable beatings, a number of hangings and other killings, blacks’ houses and churches burned, voters intimidated) were in evidence mainly in the Piedmont, but especially in counties with large numbers of Republican votes.45
Such developments showed clearly, as Escott observes, that “the sentiment of white leaders was virtually unanimous . . . against any significant improvement in the status of black North Carolinians." The social behaviors enforced upon blacks were essentially those of slavery days; those who did not observe them were targets of quick violence. Blacks in Pender County in 1867 “had to submit,” Escott says, to an outlaw band who called themselves (harking back to the Revolution) the Regulators, or leave the county because “no redress was available.” When the national Congress forced the implementation of black suffrage in 1867, white North Carolinians saw it as “the most appalling of all alternaties.” The Fourteenth Amendment (ratified in July 1868) was viewed as “an extreme measure designed to embarrass the white race.”46
Spurred partly by Klan violence, the tide turned against the Republican party and Democrats regained control of the legislature in 1870. They immediately impeached Gov. Holden, removed him from office, and passed a series of Constitutional amendments aimed at rolling back Reconstruction. By 1876, the amendments were in place, elite appointed county officials were back in power, and the state had been (as the Democrats claimed) “redeemed” from the horrors of black rule. Only a dozen years after the war ended, the election of 1877 put an end to Reconstruction.47
Toward a New South: Black Gains and Losses
Blacks were disappointed in the sometimes vacilatory Republican party at the end of Reconstruction, but with Democrats fully in control of the political apparatus, there was no alternative to staying with the Republicans. When the Democratic Party failed to act on programs favored by the progressive, biracial 100,000-member Farmers’ Alliance and the Alliance’s candidates took votes from the Democrats in the election of 1892 (which the Democrats won anyway, their efforts led by the staunch racist Furnifold Simmons [1854-1940], a native of coastal Jones County).48
The election of 1894 turned on the pivotal dynamic of Republican-Populist (“fusion”) politics. Fusionists seated seventy-four delegates in the General Assembly to the Democrats’ forty-six. Two years later they elected the very progressive Republican governor Daniel L. Russell, who called for a major increase in taxes on the railroads and declared that people were not "the serfs and slaves of the bond-holding and gold-hoarding classes." Russell placed himself on the side of "the producer and the toiler," not the "coupon-clipper."49 Fusionist victory brought substantial improvements for blacks – in education, local electoral procedures, and taxation.
The vote in these elections in coastal counties reflected both the rise of fusionist politics and (subsequently) a return to Democratic rule as the racist campaign’s effects solidified. In the 1895 General Assembly there were 60 Populists, 56 Republicans (thus a total of 116 Fusionists), and 54 Democrats. In the 1896 election, the Fusionists won 56 percent of the vote statewide, and the Populists by themselves got almost 10 percent.50
In seventeen coastal counties in that election, the Fusionists got 43 percent of the vote in Currituck, over 59 percent in New Hanover, and nearly 71 percent in Washington. Carteret was on the low end, but still with almost 49 percent. Those totals correlated fairly closely with the black/white population ratio. Washington County had 51.4 percent blacks and New Hanover 58 percent, but Currituck only 29 percent. Carteret was second lowest with about 21 percent. Dare County was anomalous, however: with a black population of only 10 percent, it voted 53 percent Fusionist (but with only a single vote for the Populist candidate).51
Clearly, Fusionists had made major gains. They controlled 62 percent of the legislative seats in 1894 and 78 percent in 1896 (with over 85 percent voter participation). These outcomes constituted, as Escott says, “a fundamental and severe threat to the traditional [racial and class] order.” Josephus Daniels’s Raleigh News and Observer (joined by other major newspapers) called it lawmaking by “low-born scum and quondam slaves” – worse than Reconstruction because it came from within the state.52
True to form, Democrats responded with racism and scare tactics. “North Carolina is a WHITE MAN’S STATE,” thundered Furnifold Simmons, “and WHITE MEN will rule it.”53 [ILLUSTRATION: N&O racist cartoon 30 Aug 1898.JPG. CAPTION: Fig. 5-11: Racist cartoon from Raleigh News and Observer, 30 August 1898.] Democratic fraud, intimidation, vote stealing, beatings of prominent Republicans, and Red Shirt violence followed.54 Virtually inevitably, the infamous Wilmington race riot of 1898 ensued.55
In the election of 1900, the results of Democratic racist and terrorist tactics were evident. [ILLUSTRATION: Negro domination cartoon, N. E. Jennett, 1898 from Crowe and Escott p116. CAPTION: Fig. 5-12: North Carolina’s Womanhood Appeals to the Ballot for Protection. The North Carolinian, 13 October 1898. From Crowe, Escott and Hatley, A History of African Americans in North Carolina, 116.] The non-white population in New Hanover County had dropped a bit (from 58 to 51 percent), but the Republicans got only 0.1 percent of the vote.56
Black/white ratios in other coastal counties held fairly steady, but Republican vote percentages dropped dramatically: Washington County’s previous 71 percent dropped to 37 percent, Onslow’s from 45 percent to 29 percent (perhaps because of its proximity to New Hanover and the 1898 race riot), Pender’s 55 percent to 18 percent (for the same reason, one suspects), Bertie’s from 65 percent to 27 percent, Pasquotank’s from 64 percent to 38 percent, and Carteret’s from 49 percent to 41 percent. Currituck’s Republican vote actually rose by 3 percent, but all other counties were down, most of them substantially.57
Pushing for a constitutional amendment in 1900 that would deny blacks the vote, white supremacy clubs and Red Shirts threatened and intimidated. Democratic gubernatorial candidate Charles B. Aycock led a propaganda campaign that denounced whites who opposed the amendment as “public enemies.” Prominent white politician Alfred Moore Waddell of Wilmington advised a crowd of whites that “if you find a Negro voting, warn him to leave . . . . [If] he refuses, kill him, shoot him down in his tracks." Two-thirds of black voters turned out, but the amendment carried (assisted by voting fraud), and the Jim Crow era arrived in full force. The chairman of the House Constitutional Amendments Committee was high-status New Hanover County lawyer George Rountree, who had taken a prominent role in the Wilmington race riot of 1898.58
By 1904 the electoral situation was even worse. Statewide, Republicans still got 38 percent of the vote, but among coastal counties there was almost no good news to offset the bad. The Republican vote in Pender was down to 11 percent, in Bertie to 10 percent, and in Camden to 8 percent. It dropped to less than 5 percent in Currituck and to 4 percent in New Hanover. Brunswick County (oddly, given its shared border with New Hanover) still gave Republicans 40 percent of its vote, but was joined in its judgment only by Albemarle area counties Dare (45 percent) and Tyrell (41 percent).59
Especially in view of the stubborn durability of racial attitudes in the state, Democratic social and electoral tactics, and new legal impediments put in place following the “separate but equal” Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court ruling in 1896, blacks still managed to make substantial gains during post-Reconstruction years.
Focusing their efforts around themes of building black organizations, racial uplift, and increasing racial diversity, blacks formed many organizations for self-improvement and mutual support. Some were purely social, some service-oriented or benevolent: the Royal Knights of King David, the United Order of True Reformers, the Household of Ruth for women, the Masons, the Odd Fellows, the Good Templars, the Sons of Ham.
Other black organizations worked for specific changes, especially the North Carolina Teachers Association and the North Carolina Industrial Association. The former focused on improving black education. [ILLUSTRATION: White man's party school Duplin Co 1898 cartoon . CAPTION: Fig. 5-13: "A 'White Man's Party' Democrat Normal Institute in Duplin County." Cartoon. Supplement to The Progressive Farmer, 25 October 1898. The North Carolina Election of 1898. North Carolina Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. (http://www.lib.unc.edu/ncc/1898/cartoon1.html; accessed 12 March 2009)] The latter promoted economic rather than political progress, and established an Industrial Fair that became the most popular social event for blacks in the mid-1880s.60
Another progressive dynamic was the rise of a black middle class. Editor William C. Smith of the black-owned Charlotte Messenger was a strong voice for nonpolitical uplift efforts. Groups of black businessmen emerged, especially in Raleigh and Durham. One group of such men attempted (unsuccessfully, as it turned out) to develop the Wilmington, Wrightsville, and Onslow Railroad.61
Unfortunately, the proliferation of post-Civil war jobs for whites in the rapidly expanding textile industry (low-paying and oppressive though many such jobs were), was confined primarily to the Piedmont. [ILLUSTRATION: nc textile-mills-1896 map. CAPTION: Fig. 5-14: Distribution of textile mills in North Carolina, 1896. Map by LEARN NC from data in North Carolina and Its Resources (Raleigh: State Board of Agriculture, 1896), 192–196]. Only a few mills were located in Wilmington, New Bern, and Elizabeth City. The situation was worse for tobacco factories: there were none closer than Rocky Mount, Wilson, and Goldsboro. [ILLUSTRATION: nc tobacco-mills-1896.jpg. CAPTION: Fig. 5-15: Distribution of tobacco factories in North Carolina, 1896. Map by LEARN NC from data in North Carolina and Its Resources (Raleigh: State Board of Agriculture, 1896), 192–196.]
At the national level, electoral gains were modest, but not completely lacking. New Bern, in the so-called “Black Second” Congressional District, sent James E. O’Hara to Congress (1883-1887), followed by George H. White (1897-1901). White was the last southern black to serve in Congress until after the 1960s.62
Jim Crow and Civil Rights
The hard-fought and violent Democrat / Fusionist struggle of the post-Civil War era made abundantly clear that cultural values, social mores, and long-established, elite-based political alignments would not tolerate any general or durable relaxation of racial categories and practices.
Between 1900 and the advent of World War II, Crow, Escott and Hatley argue, North Carolina was "hostile to [the] civil rights [of blacks] and unyielding in its devotion to white supremacy,” especially with regard to voting rights, education, and public accommodations. Black landownership peaked around 1920; the number of black farmers, the amount of land they owned, and the number of black agricultural workers all declined thereafter. Between 1910 and 1930, 57,000 blacks left the state; 220,000 more followed between 1930 and 1950. Eighteen counties had black majorities in 1900; half that many remained in 1940. By every social indicator (e.g., property values, earnings, housing, death rates), blacks ranked well below whites.
In 1933, a state study of racial attitudes among public officials in thirty-eight counties showed racism to be nearly universal. The superintendent of public welfare in Beaufort County criticized a Catholic school in Washington because nuns treated blacks and whites equally. “It makes them too biggety, and they forget their places,” he said, agreeing in essence with a western (Burke County) official who succinctly declared, “Educate a Negro and you ruin a good servant.”63.
The Depression was particularly hard on blacks, whose pre-Depression circumstances were already so far inferior to those of whites, especially with regard to education. Pasquotank County native and director of the Department of Public Instruction’s Division of Negro Education Nathan Carter Newbold (1871-1957) reported at the same time of the Rosenwald-funded study that conditions within black education were “pathetic,” with up to 100 students in some classrooms, and the high school graduation rate at 7 percent (and a thousand teachers – paid 25-30 percent less than whites) who were not themselves high school graduates).64
Unfortunately, most New Deal programs were of little benefit to blacks, and some were actively hurtful. The NRA (National Recovery Administration), designed to regulate industrial wages, hours, and prices, did not cover “Negro jobs” – some of which were in any case reassigned to unemployed whites. [ILLUSTRATION: NRA Blue Eagle logo.jpg. CAPTION: Fig. 5-16: Blue Eagle logo of the National Recovery Administration (NRA)] The number of blacks in the tobacco industry dropped precipitously. Similarly, the Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA) was ruinous for many black sharecroppers and tenants. AAA policies forced sharecroppers off the land, and some landlords stole the AAA payment checks they were supposed to share with tenants. Nevertheless, blacks in general supported FDR, and moved from the Republican to the Democratic Party.65
Not surprisingly, given how little the New Deal had done for North Carolina blacks, John Larkins’s 1940 survey for the State Board of Charities and Public Welfare painted a picture that was still grim. Even though some 13,000 blacks had managed to secure work with New Deal programs, and slightly over half of all tobacco workers were still black, other social indicators pointed to profound inequality. There was one physician for about every 1,127 white people, and one for 6,500 blacks. For dental care the situation was nearly as bad: one dentist to about 3,000 whites, and one for more than 13,000 blacks. The state was spending over $170 per pupil for white schools, but only $57 per black pupil; of more than 1,300 schools that reported having libraries a decade earlier, only 66 were in black schools.. Blacks made up 27.5 percent of the population, but more than 50 percent of the prison population, and over 80 percent of those executed for their crimes between 1910 and 1943. For eastern counties that still had a black population of more than fifty percent (Edgecombe, Halifax, Bertie, Hertford) these were very serious inequalities. Together with Wake County, New Hanover accounted for more than a third of women prisoners.66
World War II helped stimulate a great black exodus from the South: the number of blacks living on the land dropped by half between 1940 and 1960, and more than two million migrated to northern and western industrial centers in the 1940s. In some ways, racial tensions heightened. A year after Pearl Harbor, Fisk University’s Charles S. Johnson issued his “Durham manifesto,” calling for black voting rights, equalization of school facilities and teachers’ salaries, unionization of service workers, and equal access to all jobs. The following fall, however, Gov. Broughton defended the state’s record on racial matters, claiming that segregation was supported by both races, and dismissing demands emanating from the “radical Negro press.”67
Despite the fact that there were no children in school at Portsmouth or elsewhere on Core Banks after 1943, it is impossible to understand the racial context of the coastal counties in the mid-twentieth century without discussing school segregation and desegregation.68
Alhough much of the history of schooling on the CALO portion of the Banks involved private schools and academies (as indeed it did in the counties to the west), the four adjacent counties (Dare, Hyde, Pamlico and Carteret) participated fully in the educational (and thus, racial) history of the rest of the state, and thus helped set the educational, racial and cultural climate in which Outer Banks students were educated.
As noted earlier, John Mayo, a business associate of both John Wallace and the Blount family on Shell Castle Island, opened Portsmouth’s first school around 1805. The town still had an academy at the time of the Civil War, but as population decreased in the years thereafter, student attendance dropped off as well. The town’s first public one-room school building was constructed in 1916 and replaced in 1927 after wind damage. In a photograph from the 1930s mounted the restored building, teacher Mary Snead Dixon poses with her two dozen students (eleven boys and thirteen girls). She taught the school’s last group of students in 1943. [ILLUSTRATION: 20080315 Portsmouth school_050. CITATION: Fig. 5-17: Renovated Portsmouth school building (1927). Photo by David E. Whisnant.]
Further south at Cape Lookout, a fishing village – at first seasonal, but gradually becoming permanent – began to develop in the second half of the nineteenth century. Since local families who lived there – Willises, Guthries, Roses, Hancocks, Nelsons, Gaskills, Moores, Styrons – tended to be large, a school was built at some point; it was operating at least from 1900. As of 1900, the community was more populous than Harkers Island, but it declined sharply around 1919, though sixteen families were still living there at the time of the 1920 census. The school, in which a teacher from Harkers Island had taught as many as twenty-fve students, closed at the end of the 1919 school year.69
On Harkers Island, Bostonian missionary teacher Jenny Bell had opened an academy in a two-story building as early as 1864, but by the turn of the century island residents had built a one-room building behind the Methodist church for their first public school. A building built soon after the Cape Lookout school closed was soon crowded to capacity. Island population grew so rapidly after World War II that by 1957 high school students had to be bussed to a consolidated school in Smyrna.70
Thus schooling on the CALO section of the Outer Banks was rudimentary at best, and it had all ended by 1943, by which time almost all the population had moved to the mainland. The Harkers Island part of the story was better, mostly because steadily growing population pushed the development of public schools on into the twentieth century.
With regard to the adjacent mainland, racial dynamics complicated the story. Before 1900, as numerous commentators have pointed out for the South in general as well as for North Carolina, many religious groups and private organizations, as well as the Freedmen’s Bureau, founded and provided funds for black schools. Their efforts shored up a state system that was shabbily inadequate at best.
Although the state constitution of 1868 required a “general and uniform system” of free public schools for all children, an 1875 amendment required schools to be “separate but equal.” Because funding came from counties and local communities, however, black education was seriously substandard. By 1880, school terms were only four months, and 76 percent of blacks were illiterate (compared with “only” 45 percent of whites). State funds were not made available until 1897, and another decade passed before there were funds for a statewide system. Public elementary schools for blacks began to receive some state funds in 1910, but the first public secondary school for blacks did not open until 1918. High schools came later still.71
In the 1920s, the Rosenwald Fund (named for Sears, Roebuck and Company president Julius Rosenwald) embarked on a campaign to build black schools. Approximately 5,300 of them were built in fifteen southern states, 130 of them in nineteen coastal North Carolina counties and 800 statewide – the most in any single state. [ILLUSTRATION: Rosenwald school dwg from Hanchett p402. CAPTION: Fig. 5-18: Three-teacher Rosenwald School, Plan No. 3. Hanchett, “The Rosenwald Schools and Black Education in North Carolina,” North Carolina Historical Review LXV (October 1988), 402.] Carteret County received three Rosenwald schools, but they were located in Beaufort, Morehead, and Newport rather than on the Outer Banks. Confronted by southern racial attitudes and recalcitrant school boards, the Fund did not see the results it anticipated, and the program was shut down in 1932.72
By the late 1930s, black activism around the issues of voting rights, education and lynching was much in evidence. The 1938 Gaines v. Canada decision, which challenged the separate but equal doctrine of Plessy v. Ferguson, required the state of Missouri to admit a black student to its law school. That decision moved other states to act. North Carolina Gov. Hoey appointed a Commission on Higher Education for Negroes, which recommended that graduate programs for blacks be established at North Carolina College for Negroes in Durham and at A&T Technical College in Greensboro. The University of North Carolina admitted its first black student in 1955; Duke University followed six years later.73
The Brown v. Board of Education decision of 1954 forced further re-evaluation. The Fort Bragg elementary school had already desegregated quietly in 1951, but there were hard times ahead. Even the final report of the Governor’s Special Advisory Committee on Education, which included some black members, warned that "The mixing of the races forthwith in the public schools throughout the state cannot be accomplished and should not be attempted." Gov. Hodges pushed for (and got) legislation that turned over the administration of public schools to the counties and cities, thus removing responsibility from the state. The move was further buttressed by the Pearsall Plan (praised nationally as a “moderate” path between two “extremes”), which urged that white parents who didn’t want their children to go to school with blacks could withdraw them and get state grants to send them to private schools.
The statewide atmosphere of defiance proved durable.74 David Cecelski’s Along Freedom Road (1994), focused on local efforts to prevent the closing of two historically black schools in Hyde County, provides more than ample evidence of the pervasiveness of the same kinds and levels of racism in coastal counties as were to be found in the rest of the state.75
Hyde County’s history had been tortured for at least two hundred years. Slaves and convicts had dug its canals, and a fifty-year timber boom (1870-1920) fizzled when the area was logged out. A plan to drain and develop Lake Mattamuskeet had failed, the area had suffered three major hurricanes in less than a half-century (1899, 1933, 1944), and its population had been dropping steadily (to below 7,000 by 1950). Industry had passed the county by, as had military-related development that had helped nearby areas. Dilapidated buildings marked the sites of abandoned towns, and most commercial buildings in the county seat of Swan Quarter were vacant. Ninety percent of the land was owned by either the Federal government or timber and agribusiness corporations. Poverty was worse than in all but two of North Carolina’s one hundred counties.
Hyde County blacks were the worst off of all. In 1950 no black family in the whole county had running water or an indoor toilet, and whites (only a third of whom had these luxuries) conspired to keep it that way. Blacks could neither buy land nor get jobs except seasonal ones in agriculture and seafood. The local social order was Jim Crow throughout, and violent attacks on blacks were fresh in local memory.76
In order to counter these racist dynamics, local blacks had created an array of community self-help organizations, but open dissent seemed too dangerous to attempt, though they had organized a chapter of the NAACP.
Cecelski’s principal argument is that in the 1960s and 1970s, in order to desegregate the state’s schools, white officials closed down black institutions in a wholesale manner, and that whatever benefits accrued to blacks in Hyde County and elsewhere, the associated costs were high.
Already in the early 1950s, NAACP lawsuits had emerged in Pamlico and other eastern counties, and Hyde County officials saw the handwriting on the wall. In a long belated “separate but equal” effort to avoid desegregation, Hyde County’s white school leaders made dramatic improvements to black schools. But blacks weren’t buying the ploy.77
The desegregation process devastated leadership, school cultures, and “educational heritage” in the affected communities. Black school principals and school administrators virtually disappeared, and more than 3,000 black teachers lost their jobs. Meanwhile, black students frequently found their new circumstances in white school markedly inferior to those in their old schools: hostility from white students, racially biased discipline, segregated bus routes, racially-based tracking into less desirable courses, and low academic expectations.78
The costs reached well beyond the school system itself, however. The Ku Klux Klan emerged again in Hyde County – included in the KKK’s “Province 1.” By the mid-1960s, the Klan was borrowing stature from men with considerable local standing, and as many as 500 whites were attending its rallies. “Communistic” and “anti-Christian” desegregation was the basis of wide appeal. Significant KKK rallies stretched through more than two-dozen locations in eastern counties – from Jones County all the way to Moyock on the Virginia border.79
Hyde County students and their parents understood the whole array of these costs. Black/white political conflict grew markedly from 1966 onward. For an entire year (1968-69), black students (representing 60 percent of the entire school population) expressed their anger – and their objections to closing the two local schools – by refusing to attend school.80 One of the two was O. A. Peay, which, Cecelski says, was “a source of inestimable pride to Hyde County blacks and [a symbol of] their aspirations for education and racial advancement”81
The furor over the school closings attracted the attention of Golden Frinks, whom Cecelski calls “the most important civil rights organizer in eastern North Carolina in the 1960s” and the leader of the Edenton Movement for civil rights in 1961. Unlike other such movements in the South at the time, composed largely of college students, the Edenton Movement drew its participants from poor, uneducated, rural people. And it was remarkably effective.
In September, 1968, Frinks led fifteen hundred blacks in a march in Swan Quarter. Other marches and protest meetings followed almost daily, becoming more and more confrontational. Many children began to attend “movement schools” organized in local churches, and many who participated in the protests went to jail – so many that jails many miles away had to be used.
Marches to Raleigh followed in 1969, by which time Hyde County had become the focus of much of the civil rights activity in the state. Conflict and negotiations dragged into 1970, when at last an agreement was reached to operate both the two black schools and the previously white Lake Mattamuskeet, converting all three to combined black-white schools.82
In the months that followed, the Hyde County episode spilled over into Wilmington, in what developed into the nationally famous Wilmington 10 case. In 1971 100 students gathered at Gregory Congregational United Church of Christ to protest the closing of an all-black high school in Williston in Carteret County. Black students demanded that the school be reopened as an all-black school, that a course on black history be designed for Wilmington schools, and that Martin Luther King’s birthday be officially celebrated.
Racial tensions escalated. One of many available snapshots of subsequent events captures the essence of the social turmoil:
[T]wo downtown businesses were burned, and there was evidence of other arson attempts. African American activists were blamed for the incidents. Members of the Ku Klux Klan and a group called The Rights of White People began to patrol downtown Wilmington armed and openly hostile to the boycotting students and their leaders. On the night of 6 February 1971, several fires were set, and a small downtown grocery store was firebombed. When firemen reported to the scene, they were shot at by snipers on the roof of the Gregory Congregational Church, in which . . . a number of students were barricaded. Two people were killed and several were injured during the battle that raged that night and into the next day. Finally, on February 8, National Guardsmen forced their way into the church only to find it empty.83
The local Board of Education sought a restraining order against the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and the battle continued for many weeks. Eventually nine black men and one black woman (the “Wilmington 10”) were arrested for an alleged firebombing. They were tried, convicted, and sentenced to more than twenty years each in prison. Higher courts turned down their appeals, and in 1978 Gov. James Hunt refused to pardon them. [ILLUSTRATION: free the wilimington 10 logo.jpg. CAPTION: Fig. 5-19: Logo for the Free the Wilmington Ten campaign.] Their sentences were finally overturned by a Federal court of appeals in 1980.84
The Hyde County, Carteret County and Wilmington events were mileposts in a long statewide and national process. In North Carolina, segregation was both pervasive (extending even to the Bibles used for swearing in in courts) and stubbornly ingrained socially, culturally, politically, and legally.
Protests against these conditions began decades before the turbulent 1950s and 1960s. As early as 1932, black ministers refused to participate in the dedication of War Memorial Auditorium in Raleigh, and in 1938 students in Greensboro initiated a theater boycott that spread to other locations. The Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) emerged in 1942, and a short time later organized an interracial bus trip to challenge the Morgan v. Virginia decision of 1946.85 Riders were arrested in Durham, Chapel Hill and Asheville, in an action that became a model for the freedom rides of the 1960s. The NAACP sponsored some school boycotts in the 1940s, and a sit in at an ice cream parlor in Durham followed in 1957 – three years before the much more famous Woolworth’s sitin in Greensboro.
As citizen actions both for and against segregation multiplied in the early 1960s, Gov. Terry Sanford in 1963 organized a biracial Good Neighbor Council and urged mayors and county commissioners to model it at the local level. The NAACP’s Legal Defense fund represented blacks in desegregation suits, but threats from the KKK continued and four activists’ homes were bombed in Charlotte. Nationally, the March on Washington, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and Martin Luther King’s Poor People’s Campaign (1968) raised the pressure for change.86In North Carolina, however, desegregation was not complete until the 1970s.87
Race, Class, and Work: The Menhaden Industry
In late November of 1990, New York Times music critic Jon Pareles sat in the audience at a local a recital hall and watched as ten men in dark suits and hats filed onstage. They sat in a semicircle, he wrote, “singing in sumptuous gospel harmony and regularly leaning forward to pull in an imaginary fish net.” They were the Menhaden Chanteymen from Beaufort, North Carolina, “members of the last generation to pull in by hand nets holding thousands of menhaden.”
Since the 1960s, Pareles explained,
the oily fish . . . [have] been harvested with power winches, but the songs that rallied the fishermen's strength have survived. . . . They are call-and-response songs, paced like slow-rolling sea swells. A single voice or two in harmony sing a line that is answered by the full chorus . . . with lyrics about the work, the weather, harsh captains and women back on shore. After each verse, the men pulled with a burst of chatter and exhortations like "Let's get the fish up!"
The songs are functional, but away from the waves and sweat, they stand on their own. The lead singers—John Jones, Leroy Cox and John Bell – had voices full of rough-hewn dignity and gentleness. . . . The cooperation that made it possible to harvest menhaden with muscle power shines through the music.88
But it wasn’t in fact all cooperation, though there had to be a lot of it. How race (and class as well) actually played out among menhaden fishermen in coastal North Carolina is the subject of Barbara Garrity-Blake’s study of race relations in the industry.89
The roots of the industry lay in New England, where most fishermen were white, the cooperatively organized fishing groups were small, and the catch was shared equally – usually in the form of fish put directly on the fields as fertilizer. Foreshadowing later industrialization of the enterprise, however, a new way to extract menhaden oil (used in paint, soap, miners’ lamps, and tanning) was discovered about 1850, exciting the interest of profit-hungry entrepreneurs.
By 1860, the first menhaden-cooking factories appeared, driven partly, as well, by the increasing scarcity of whale oil. Near-shore fishing declined, replaced by large offshore schooners and sloops served by net-setting purse boats and seines. Faster and bigger steamer vessels followed in the 1870s; and by 1895 the last sail craft in the industry had disappeared. The costs of running the steamers in turn drove vertical integration in the industry, squeezing out small operators. At the turn of the century, production (now mostly of fish meal) skyrocketed as the number of factories declined. The predominantly white labor of the early days was slowly replaced by displaced whaling crewmen and then by Portuguese immigrants, both on the steamers and in the onshore processing factories.90
The closing years of the century saw the ominous depletion of the menhaden waters of New England, and the push south began. By the end of the century, Garrity-Blake observes, “both black and white men of coastal Virginia and North Carolina were hired by newly arrived, Yankee-owned fish oil factories.” Fabulously successful Maine menhaden industrialist Elijah Reed led the way with his Chesapeake (Reedville, Virginia) factories, but many others followed. By 1907, ten factories in Beaufort, Morehead City, and Southport employed 500 and were processing 57 million pounds annually.
Early workers in the Virginia factories were mainly white immigrants sent down from Baltimore, but further south the work force shifted fairly quickly to southern blacks. Whites kept the upper-level managerial jobs, however, and (as usual) blacks got the lower (crewman and processing) ones.
Over the next several decades, as southerners replaced northerners as owners and managers, and new technology made the industry less labor-intensive, a “better mixture” of black/white labor emerged and the racial line “became less rigid.” One reason was that whites and blacks experienced a degree of equality in that both were “wage laborers for alien industrialists.” As the decades passed, Garrity-Blake discovered, race relations aboard menhaden vessels came to exhibit a “unique quality.”Those relations, she argues, “were no simple matter of domination and subordination,” but rather a situation “of mutual dependency between [almost always white] captains and [largely black] crewmen, with power at both ends of the hierarchy.”Captains knew how to find the fish, and crewmen knew how – by harmonizing their efforts (literally, through song) and fusing their strength – to corral them and get them into the boat.91
On the large mechanized boats, tasks became less and less specialized. Older task-based distinctions disappeared, so that “By the 1950s, crewmen were largely an undifferentiated group, defined . . . in opposition to vessel officers.” Experience was less relevant, but race was not. In 1915, Garrity-Blake reports, captains, mates, pilots, firemen, and engineers were white, but deckhands and cooks were black. Officers and crew ate at separate tables, and slept in separate quarters. Onshore, segregation prevailed as always. In Beaufort, black crewmen (especially seasonal workers from Virginia) were carefully confined to the “nigger section,” while industrialists and captains built sumptuous homes on Front Street.92
The crude racist phrase emphasizes Garrity-Blake’s major finding that – to whatever degree the arduous and dangerous work on the boats required some disregard for traditional racial and status boundaries – the work structure in the industry was “distinctly stratified.” Captains’ annual wages were from two to four times higher than those of crewmen.93
As the industry grew, formerly sleepy coastal villages were transformed by the industry, its seasonal rhythms, and its pervasive smell. Gender relations were transformed as well as men boarded the boats for days, weeks, or months at a time. Captains’ wives puttered about the house and garden, as most of them long had, but black crewmens’ wives took part-time jobs as domestics or oyster shuckers and crab pickers.94
In the years after World War II, several technological innovations wrought major changes in work (hence, racial) relations: the use of spotter planes, the adoption of the power winch, and the use of centrifugal pumps to transfer the fish into the (newly refrigerated) holds. Captains whose literal and functional importance had been partly defined by ascending to the crow’s nest to spot menhaden schools lost status to the spotter planes that radioed in an instant the vital intelligence captains had taken decades to acquire and were intensely proud of. Power winches used to pull up huge nets laden with tens of thousands of pounds of fish reduced the need for the labor of crews that for many decades had done it by brute strength, coordinated by group songs that synchronized force and bolstered will.
The menhaden chanteys Jon Pareles heard in a New York concert hall were hauntingly beautiful, and they conveyed undeniable truths about the working lives of black men in the industry. Early New England white menhaden fishermen had not sung as they worked; southern blacks added that culturally characteristic element when the industry relocated.95 But the concert stage version of chanteys was inevitably romanticized; the chanteys sung on boats to help haul in the nets referenced far harsher realities.
Garrity-Blake’s close examination of the menhaden chanteys leads to subtle insights into racial, status, and work relations in the industry. Whereas many captains had a social, cultural – indeed at times nearly mystical – understanding of their work (calling, one might almost say), blacks did it for money to care for their families that was virtually unavailable elsewhere. And in contrast to the individualistic posture of the white captains, for black crewmen it was a collective effort – pursued in solidarity despite the danger of circling sharks, the straw mattresses on the bunks, the grueling labor, the treacherous weather, the ever-present worry about losing their women and authority at home while they were away.96
Such conditions, challenges, and fears drove the songs. “I left my baby / standing in the back door crying,” one said, evoking the rupture in the rhythms of home life. Crewmen’s sense of helplessness about threats to home life – and to marriages – found an image in a house fire:
Oh, the house is on
fire, fire, fire.
Oh, the house is on fire,
and it all go burning down.
“I got a letter this morning / Hey, hey, honey! . . . See you when the sun go down. / I couldn’t read it for crying,” said another.97
Singing the chanteys gave pleasure to the singers, but it was also necessary to the task. Fishermen, Garrity-Blake says,
described working shoulder to shoulder as one, singing to make “heaven and earth come together,” while focused trancelike on the “money” in the net. While singing, crewmen lost all track of time, surroundings, and aching muscles. “Everybody would pull the same time,” someone explained. “You didn’t know how much you was pulling. You’d be getting about happy there singing them songs, all them [fish] in that net . . . everybody feeling good and everything.”98
The power block changed everything: half the crews lost their jobs, and the block did the work that had called forth the songs. But older crewmen remembered when the songs that could be heard for long distances over the water would mesmerize the day sailors and yachtsmen: “[We] start singing, heaven and earth would come together. People on the shore would turn and listen at ‘em. All along the shoreline, just standing there. Then people in them yachts bring us whisky and money. Whiskey and money!” The order of things was turned momentarily upside-down, Garrity-Blake observes, “the rich . . . held captive by the poor.”99
The evidence that coastal North Carolina has reliably ratified, normalized, and participated fully in state- and nationwide structures and cultures of racism, reinforced by class difference – from its earliest years until the present – is incontrovertible, as we hope the foregoing has made clear. And yet there has also always been some scattered and sporadic evidence that not everyone in all times and places stayed within well-established racial lines.
In a many times reproduced photograph from 1880, black and white mullet fishermen stand before a round, traditional (perhaps African-derived) fishermen’s shack on Shackleford Banks.100 [ILLUSTRATION: Black and white mullet fishermen from Dunbar fig 14.jpg. CAPTION: Fig. 5-20: Black and white mullet fishermen.] To coastal historian David Cecelski that image revealed “unclear lines of authority” – an uncharacteristic “chuminess” and familiarity. Immediately, however, he cautions against exaggerating the extent of racial boundary blurring. “For years,” he recalls, a “No Niggers After Dark” sign stood at the town limits of Atlantic, a few miles from the remarkable black community of Davis Ridge – an island of racial harmony and cooperation where blacks and whites visited, ate, worshipped, sang and played music, and fished together. Even more widely on the stretch of the Banks between Ocracoke Island and Bogue Banks, black and white mullet fishermen worked, lived and ate together, and when the catch was in, shared the profits equally.101
Such blurring of racial lines was in evidence from the time of the earliest settlers. Kristi Rutz-Robbins’s recent meticulously documented study of race, class and gender in the Albemarle area economy from 1663 to 1729 shows that black, white, and Indian men and women had numerous economic relationships, and that merchants depended upon them.102
Those economic relationships existed side-by-side with interracial personal, familial, and marital relationships that were frequently illegal but were nevertheless tolerated in the community. Rutz-Robbins cites a 1727 case, for example, of a of mixed-race couple who had been cohabiting for years, and another mixed couple who married, without legal challenge. The record is replete with numerous other boundary-blurring cases: trading across racial lines (including with slaves), black-white cohabitations and marriages that were illegal but tacitly accepted. “Such marriages and cohabitations,” she says, “blurred the boundaries between white and black, created free black communities and pointed to ways in which interracial contact pushed in oppositional ways from the racially restrictive society evolving at the time.” The area was, she concludes, “a world still flexible in its developing racial hierarchy,” in which “economic realities . . . conflicted with legal frameworks.”103
Such functional looseness as Rutz-Robbins discovered in the record waned as the decades passed and anxieties about the black presence grew. The relative freedom slave watermen had was undeniable, but carefully circumscribed: when all was said and done, they were black slaves nevertheless.
And the ambiguity persisted. Nearly fifteen years after the Civil War ended, the first all-black Life-Saving Service crew was established at Pea Island in Dare County, but the appointment did not betoken complete racial harmony. [ILLUSTRATION: All black Pea Island LS crew Mobley p 96. CAPTION: Fig. 5-21: All-Black Pea Island Life-Saving Crew. Mobley, Ship Ashore!: The U.S. Lifesavers of Coastal North Carolina (1994), 96. Original in North Carolina State Archives.] The crew was appointed because half of the crew had been dismissed due to dereliction of duty during the M&S Henderson shipwreck of November 1979. Black surfman Richard Etheridge’s reputation for superb competence led to his appointment as the new keeper, but official uneasiness resulted in transferring and hiring an all-black crew so that Etheridge would not be in the socially untenable position of commanding whites. Though soon thereafter the station was burned down (perhaps by whites), the crew remained all black until the station was closed in 1947.104
Epilogue: The Pigott Family and Race Relations in Portsmouth
In the decades since Portsmouth lost virtually all its population, a charming story has taken shape with regard to the topic of race relations in the town. The story centers around the family of Henry Pigott, its last (and unfailingly helpful and loyal) black resident. [ILLUSTRATION: Henry Pigott ca. 1910 14 years old a19.tif. CAPTION: Fig. 5-22: Henry Pigott at about the age of fourteen (ca. 1910). Cape Lookout National Seashore archive photo.] The fact that Pigott (1896-1971), a descendent of slaves, was black and poor but nevertheless “a friend to all,” as a plaque in the local Methodist church says, does not mean that race and class did not exist as markers, but that on Portsmouth Island (as everywhere else) they were configured in complex ways.105
Looking closely at persistent elements of the story, one can easily discern several repeated motifs: Race relations in the town and on the island were harmonious and unproblematic. “Family” was the preferred metaphor for describing those relations. Racial boundaries were marked more strongly in some regards than in others. And blacks (reductively embodied at last in the figure of Henry Pigott) were content with the old paternalistic system. “There were never any segregation rules,” writes Ellen Fulcher Cloud in Portsmouth: The Way It Was, “except what the blacks imposed upon themselves.”106
Sometime after Pigott’s death in 1971, the Park Service produced a brochure about him. It outlined of what was to become the standard story: Pigott was descended from slaves. His ancestors stayed in Portsmouth after most former slaves left. His grandmother Rosa Abbot was a jack of all trades (midwife, doctor and nurse, gristmill worker) who also fished for her living. Her daughter Leah had seven children, of whom Henry was one.107 Henry and his sister Lizzie stayed on Portsmouth, but the other siblings left. Lizzie became the town barber, and both she and Henry continued to fish and oyster for a living. Henry poled the mail boat to Ocracoke, and hauled back passengers, provisions and mail for his neighbors. His house (preserved now for tourists to see) was painted pink for years because he thought it was too much trouble to return the paint for the yellow he had ordered. When he died, Portsmouth Village lost its last male resident.
Former residents who knew Henry, Lizzie and other family members recalled them fondly, and spoke of loving them, of their being “nice folks.”108 Henry’s death in 1971 was the final straw for the island’s last two remaining residents, Marian Gray Babb and Elma Dixon, who decided that, without Henry there to help them, they could not stay. So they packed up and left, and Portsmouth Village became a ghost town.109
Thus with regard to race, the standard story of the Pigotts was simple: some slaves came, most left at Emancipation, but one family stayed. Several generations of them had numerous children, most of whom left the island. But two of Leah’s children, Henry and Lizzie, stayed and became beloved and useful participants in the life of Portsmouth, where folks paid no attention to race. It was the best of separate but equal paternalism.
One does not have to push very far, however, to discover that the real story was much more complicated and ambiguous than the popular one, and that available facts do not allow one to resolve the ambiguities.
To probe below the surface of the story, one should first recall two facts about miscegenation in North Carolina from its earliest days onward: (1) it was illegal, and (2) it was ubiquitous.
Of its illegality there can be no doubt. In 1896, pioneering scholar of Afro-American life in North Carolina John Spencer Bassett observed that concern over the threat (and fact) of miscegenation and cross-racial marriage in North Carolina was already widespread enough by 1715 to lead to the passage of a law that prescribed harsh penalties against white servants who had children by blacks or mulattoes, and against ministers who married interracial couples. A stronger marriage law of 1741 inveighed against “the abominable mixture and spurious issue” of such unions.110
It is not surprising, then, that the complexities of the situation were not always meticulously noted in official records.
In their account of the Pigott family (the most extensive in print), Salter and Willis recount that Aunt Rosa Abbott (whom along with her four siblings everyone “loved very much”) had a daughter Leah, who “had the last name of Pigott.” Leah had seven children. One son was Henry, and one daughter was Elizabeth (Lizzie). Salter and Willis say they don’t remember Henry and Leah’s father.
They never talked about him, nor did they mention who he was or where he was. We never asked. . . . [Henry] was not dark in color, he was like an Indian in appearance. . . . We never heard about a color barrier in those days. There was no need; we were all in the work together. . . . The Pigotts attended the Methodist Church that we did. They visited with us and lived among us. . . . [A] finer man I never knew. . . . Neither Henry nor Lizzie ever married.111 [ILLUSTRATION: Henry Pigott and Walker Styron Nov 1955 b58.tif. CAPTION: Fig. 5-23: Henry Pigott and Walker Styron, 1955. Cape Lookout National Seashore archive photo.]
The thinly veiled hints of illegitimacy and perhaps miscegenation are enough to pique one’s curiosity. Unfortunately,= the documentary base for sorting out the nuances is rather thin. One has to make do with what is available.112
Ellen Fulcher Cloud’s fragmentary account of what it seems appropriate to call the Abbot-PIgott family is replete with suggestions of irregularities in their family history. Rose seems to have been a servant or slave in the home of well-to-do Earls Island, and to have stayed on with the Irelands after the Civil War ended. By 1880 she had moved out, but two of her children (Leah and Dorcus) remained with Ireland and were listed in the census of that year as his grandchildren. But by the 1900 census, the Irelands had moved next door, and Leah has moved back in with Rose, and is listed as her granddaughter. But if Leah was Rose’s daughter and Ireland’s granddaughter, Cloud observes, the Rose “had to be the daughter of either Earls Ireland or his wife Matilda Ireland.”
Here the story gets even more complicated. Sometime between 1880 and 1900, Cloud continues, Rose changed her name from Ireland to Pigott, but there was no record of her marrying. By 1900, Leah had five children, including Henry and Lizzie Pigott, whose death certificates list Leah as their mother, without specifying a father.113
Clearly, then, these slender threads of evidence in the Portsmouth family stories are too fragile to support weighty conclusions about the genealogy of the Ireland-Abbot-Pigott family system. But some evidence available in census records provides more than adequate caution against accepting the popular but unproblematized accounts of post-racial harmony on the island.
The census records are clear on the matter of the presence of blacks (slave and free) on Portsmouth Island. Beyond that, it is intriguing to tease out additional conclusions about miscegenation and the presence of mulattoes.
In their tabulation of the 1850 census for Carteret County, Simpson and Taylor included township-level data on mulattoes.114 Portsmouth had none in its list, but Straits had one, and Beaufort had dozens in the Davis, Dismal, Ellison, Fisher, Green, Whittington, Wade and Windsor families (and others). The existence of an impermeable barrier against miscegenation in Portsmouth would be especially noteworthy, then, since in 1810 the town had had half as many slaves as free whites, and a quarter as many (463 and 117) in 1850.115
A comparison cannot be made for 1860, because slave census schedules were not separated by township, but by 1870, the census enumerator was provided with a column for “Color” (White, Black, Mulatto, Chinese and Indian). Nearly all were coded as white, but six blacks were present in the township. Five of them were enumerated with the Earls Ireland family: Rose (35, domestic servant), Harriet (18, domestic servant), Sarah [?] (10), Dorcas (1), Leah, and Elijah [?] (five year-old male). No last names were given for the Ireland family blacks, but the horizontal line in the surname position in the Name column implies that they shared the Ireland surname. This gives credence to Ellen Fulcher Cloud’s conclusion that the children listed were parented by either Earls Ireland or his wife Matilda. If that was the case, listing them as Black rather than Mulatto reveals some denial on the part of either the Irelands or the enumerator, or both.116
The 1900 census conveys a more complex picture yet of the remaining blacks. Rose’s last name is given as Pickett, there are eight offspring (direct or step- ), and there is no adult male who is not either a son or stepson. Rose is now 53 years old, and the offspring range from a two year-old stepson to a thirty year-old son. To be enumerated as her stepchildren, those five offspring would have to have been the children of a man to whom Rose was (or had been) married. Additionally, the children’s names given in the 1900 census do not match fully with those listed in 1870.117
Detailed as they are, census records do not allow us to resolve the ambiguities of the racial situation in Portmouth. But they do caution one not to conclude too easily that the town’s social mores did not lie magically outside the social and cultural complexities in evidence virtually everywhere else. Leah Pigott’s gravestone in a small cemetery and her brother Henry’s house remain to tantalize us about the complexities of life in Portsmouth. [ILLUSTRATION: Leah Pigott gravestone f512.tif. CAPTION: Fig. 5-24: Gravestone of Leah Pigott (1867-1922) in a Portsmoth cemetery. Cape Lookout National Seashore archive photo.] [ILLUSTRATION: Henry Pigott house DW photo 20080315. CAPTION: Fig. 5-25: Henry Pigott House, Portsmouth, restored and repainted to the yellow he preferred. Photo by David E. Whisnant, 2008.]